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Nicomachean Ethics

Nicomachean Ethics Summary


Here you will find a Nicomachean Ethics summary (Aristotle's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Nicomachean Ethics Summary Overview

Every human action is directed towards an end that is perceived as beneficial, often serving as a pathway to a more significant purpose. The supreme good for humans is an end in itself - happiness. We strive for happiness for its own sake, not as a means to another end. Determining the best route to achieve happiness is the primary aim of Ethics, although the study is naturally imprecise due to the influence of varying circumstances. Happiness is contingent upon living in harmony with suitable virtues, which are innate dispositions rather than activities. A virtuous individual is naturally inclined to act rightly for the correct reasons, taking pleasure in such behavior. Virtue is a moderate state between the extremes of excess and deficiency, the balance of which varies among individuals. Only voluntary actions, which are instigated by the individual, not external forces, are worthy of praise or blame. However, there are exceptions, such as when severe threats force individuals into dishonorable actions. These voluntary actions are characterized by thoughtful deliberation and choice, where the individual determines the most beneficial course of action towards desired outcomes. Aristotle analyzes various moral virtues and their corresponding vices. For example, courage embodies confidence in the face of fear, and patience represents the proper disposition towards anger. Justice, in a sense, covers all other virtues, as it involves exhibiting virtue in general. Human affairs primarily encompass two forms of justice - distributive and rectificatory, dealing with the fair distribution of wealth or honor, and maintaining balance in exchanges between individuals, respectively. Intellectual virtues are also crucial for proper reasoning about conduct. Although a happy person is theoretically self-sufficient, friendship, particularly those based on character goodness, is an essential element of the good life. Ultimately, the highest good is rational contemplation, and while a life full of contemplation is implausible, we must aim to approach this ideal as closely as possible.

book 1

The goal of any human activity is to reach a certain desired outcome, which we view as good. The most superior of these goods are those we seek for their own sake, these are the ultimate Good. The Good is a subject matter of political science, which works towards achieving the highest goods for human life. However, politics is not exact, as what is beneficial for one might not be for another, hence we can only draft a vague sketch of the Good. There is a universal consensus that happiness is the ultimate Good, however, there is variation on what happiness constitutes. Many associate it with sensual pleasure, but humans have loftier goals. Some believe that honor is the utmost good, but honors are merely acknowledgment of goodness, indicating there's a superior good. The Theory of Forms by Plato proposes that there is a singular Form of Good. But when considering the varied nature of “good”, this theory seems to have holes. Our focus should be on the pragmatic question of how to be good, not abstract concepts. Happiness is the ultimate good as it is chosen for its own sake. Even intelligence and virtue are chosen not only for their inherent goodness but also because they promote happiness. We say a person is “good” if they perform their function well. For example, a good flutist is one who plays the flute well. Playing the flute is their function as it's their unique activity. Likewise, the unique function of humans is rationality. Hence, the ultimate Good is an activity of the rational soul aligned with virtue. This aligns with popular notions of happiness, which equates a happy person as being virtuous, rational, and active. When discussing happiness, we must look at an individual's entire life, not just fleeting moments. This proposes the paradox that one can only be deemed happy posthumously, upon examining their entire life. A virtuous person always behaves virtuously, even in the face of adversity. Aristotle suggests that a person's happiness could be somewhat influenced post-death by honors, dishonors, or the behavior of their descendants, but not significantly. The soul can be classified into irrational and rational sections. The irrational soul has two parts: the vegetative part, which deals with growth and food and doesn’t contribute much to virtue; and the appetitive part, which controls our impulses. The rational part of the soul manages these impulses, hence a virtuous person with more rationality can better control their impulses.

book 2

Virtue takes two forms: intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtue comes from instruction, whereas moral virtue develops through habitual right action. Just as a musician hones their skills through practice, we cultivate virtue through consistent right behavior. Given life's diverse circumstances, rigid conduct rules are not feasible. Instead, we acknowledge that right behavior maintains a balance between deficiency and excess extremes. For example, courage is a midpoint between cowardice and recklessness, albeit the exact courage amount shifts with each situation. Developing a balanced approach to pleasure and pain is key for moral virtue. Unlike a glutton who derives improper pleasure from food and suffers unmerited pain from its absence, a self-restrained person delights in abstaining from excessive indulgence. Aristotle defines three criteria differentiating virtuous individuals from those incidentally acting rightly: virtuous individuals are aware of their right actions, they consciously choose to act rightly for virtue's sake, and their actions are consistent with a firmly established virtuous disposition. According to Aristotle, virtue is not a feeling or ability, but a disposition. While feelings catalyze specific actions and abilities regulate our feelings' potential, virtue predisposes us towards right behavior. Virtue is not a feeling nor the capacity for feeling, rather, it is the tendency to act rightly. Consequently, human virtue is defined as a disposition to act rightly and is a balance between extremes, whether deficiency or excess, which are vices. Not every action has a virtuous midpoint though, actions like murder or adultery are inherently wrong. Aristotle presented a list of key virtues and their corresponding deficiency and excess vices in a virtue-vice table. Some extremes appear closer to the mean than others, for instance, recklessness seems nearer to courage than cowardice. This is partly because courage resembles recklessness more than cowardice, and partly because we are generally more prone to cowardice than recklessness, making us more conscious of courage deficiency. Finally, Aristotle offers three practical conduct guidelines: First, evade the extreme further from the mean. Second, identify and diligently avoid our personal error susceptibilities. Third, maintain caution towards pleasure as it can cloud judgment.

book 3

Our judgment of an individual's actions is partly based on whether the actions are done willingly, unwillingly, or without awareness. Actions are unwilling when they are forced and result in pain for the one acting. There are grey areas, for instance when a person does something shameful under threat, but largely, these are considered willing actions, as the person maintains control. When an action is done in ignorance, it can be deemed unwilling if the person later realises their ignorance, but it is non-willing if the person remains unaware or unaffected by their ignorance. However, ignorance only excuses isolated cases, not habitual behavior, as constant ignorance of what's good is what makes a person bad. It appears that choice is a better gauge of moral worth as, unlike actions, choices are always made willingly. We make choices about the ways we employ to achieve a desired outcome. The decision-making process, which precedes choice, is only focused on controllable means and when the right course of action isn't immediately clear. The decision-making process follows the analytical method. We first identify our desired outcome and then reason backwards to find the means we could use to achieve this outcome. When choosing, good-hearted people always aim for the good. Those who lack good character may misinterpret things and only desire the apparent good. Both virtue and vice are within human control as they are tied to choices we willingly and consciously make. This is supported by the fact that rewards and punishments are only given for actions we are believed to have done willingly. Bad behavior results in bad habits that are hard to change, but a lack of self-discipline is not a legitimate excuse. After discussing virtue generally, Aristotle dives into individual virtues, starting with courage, defined as the appropriate response to fear. Courage doesn't equate to fearlessness, as there are things, like shame or cruelty to family, that one should fear. Instead, courage means having confidence when facing fear, best displayed on the battlefield where men are unafraid of an honorable death. Extreme fearfulness is the vice of cowardice, while lacking fear is recklessness. There are things that mimic courage but aren't. The soldier who fights fearing disgrace, the experienced soldier unafraid of a known false threat, the soldier boldened by anger or pain, the overly confident soldier with no fear, and the soldier unaware of the risk he's in, do not possess courage. Courage is a commendable and challenging virtue as it involves enduring pain. Temperance is the moderate state in relation to physical pleasure, while the vice of excessive desire for physical pleasure is licentiousness. The grossest pleasures relate to taste and particularly touch, which are most likely to lead to licentiousness. The licentious person not only enjoys excessive physical sensations but also suffers excessively when deprived of these pleasures. The vice of lacking pleasure is so uncommon it doesn't have a name, though insensibility seems fitting. Temperate people enjoy appropriate amounts of pleasure, and only from things that promote health and fitness.

book 4

Generosity entails spending money wisely, while wastefulness and stinginess signify misuse. The generous individual gives appropriate amounts of money to the right people at the right time and enjoys doing so. Such an individual does not feel a strong attachment to money, manages resources effectively, and does not waste money like a wasteful person would. Wastefulness, being a result of lack of wisdom, is more tolerable than stinginess. Generosity pertains to regular spending, while magnificence is the virtue of spending large amounts of money appropriately on public gifts. Magnificence necessitates good taste: extravagant displays of wealth show vulgarity, while ruining a public gift due to cheapness indicates pettiness. Magnanimity refers to the quality of knowing one's worth. An overconfident individual is arrogant, while an underconfident individual is timid. Both traits are more erroneous than bad, with timidity generally being more negative. The magnanimous individual knows their worth, accepts deserved honors without undue pleasure, and aims for superior positions. As Aristotle stated about the magnanimous individual, “his gait is measured, his voice deep, and his speech unhurried.” Concerning minor honors, a virtuous balance lies between extreme ambition and lack of ambition. Patience is akin to the correct attitude towards anger, though sometimes some anger is justified. Excessive anger is manifested in hot-tempered individuals or grudge-holders. Friendliness, honesty, and wit are crucial social traits. Friendliness is the quality of suitable social behavior. Overeagerness to please or quarrelsome behavior indicate an imbalance of friendliness. Honesty is a desirable trait, balanced between self-deprecation and boasting. Modest self-deprecation is acceptable, but boastfulness, especially for undeserved gains, is reprehensible. Wit contributes to good conversation. A person who lacks wit is dull and easily offended, while excessive jesting shows lack of tact. Modesty, though not a virtue, is a necessary feeling for well-mannered youths, helping them feel shame when necessary. A virtuous person won't need modesty, having no cause for shame, but a youth learns virtue by feeling shame when appropriate.

book 5

Justice refers to either obeying the law or demonstrating fairness. As laws promote virtuous conduct, a just individual, being lawful, is by definition virtuous. While virtue pertains to one's moral character, justice pertains to one's interactions with others. A universally just individual is one who is consistently lawful and fair. Specific justice pertains to divisible goods like honor, money, and safety, where one person's acquisition leads to another's corresponding loss. Two types of specific justice exist: distributive and rectificatory. Distributive justice concerns the allocation of wealth within a community and operates on geometric proportion: each person gets according to their merit, hence a virtuous individual gets more than a non-virtuous one. This form of justice strikes a balance between giving excessively and inadequately. Rectificatory justice corrects imbalances of gain and loss between two people and is applicable in cases of both voluntary transactions like trade, and involuntary ones like theft or assault. In legal proceedings, justice is restored by balancing the gain and loss on both sides. Justice should be proportionate; a shoemaker cannot trade one shoe for an entire harvest, as their values are not equal. Instead, the shoemaker should offer shoes proportional in value to the farmer's crops. Money provides a reflection of demand and enables fair exchanges. There's a clear distinction between political justice and domestic justice. Political justice is law-based, while domestic justice leans more on respect. Political justice comprises natural law, universal to all, and legal customs, which vary regionally. Individuals are only accountable for those unjust acts they willingly commit. Injustice born from ignorance is termed a "mistake," while unintended injustice due to unsuccessful plans is called a "misadventure," and knowing but unpremeditated injustice is referred to as an "injury." Ignorance can only excuse if it is genuinely unavoidable. Aristotle contends that nobody would voluntarily endure injustice. When goods are distributed unjustly, the distributor is more blameworthy than the recipient. Many erroneously believe that justice is merely about obeying laws. However, real justice stems from virtue, and those lacking virtue can't always discern just actions. Laws might not always yield perfect justice. In such situations, equity is applied to correct the imbalance. Hence, equity surpasses legal justice but falls short of absolute justice. One cannot inflict injustice on oneself. As injustice necessitates gain at another's expense, it requires at least two individuals. Even in suicide, the state, and not the victim, experiences the injustice.

book 6

In understanding virtue, we must choose a balance between harmful extremes per proper guidelines. This is like advising an ill person to take medication as prescribed by a doctor. Essentially, we can't fully comprehend virtue until we acknowledge the right principle. To do this, the intellectual virtues must be studied. The human soul has a logical side and an illogical one. The logical side is divided into a thinking part, which explores the unchanging truths of science and math, and a planning part, which addresses practical aspects of human life. Correct reasoning in relation to the thinking intellect equates to truth. In the planning intellect, correct reasoning equates to proper decision-making that results in the right choices. There are five intellectual virtues that lead the soul to truth. First, scientific knowledge derives eternal truths through deduction or induction. Second, art or technical skill means creating something based on correct reasoning. Third, prudence or practical wisdom guides us to lead a good life. Fourth, intuition enables us to understand the basic principles from which we get scientific truths. Fifth, wisdom is a blend of scientific knowledge and intuition, facilitating the discovery of higher truths. Political science is a type of prudence, as it ensures the welfare of a city. Creativity, or good decision-making, is different from scientific knowledge, belief, or speculation. It's a process that helps achieve the goals outlined by prudence. Understanding is a kind of judgment about practical matters and aids in deciding what is fair. Judgment, understanding, prudence, and intuition are innate gifts that guide us to the right actions. Intellectual virtues assist us in recognizing what is fair and commendable, while moral virtues guide us to do fair and commendable acts. One might question the value of intellectual virtues, considering knowledge is pointless without action. First, intellectual virtues lead to happiness, thus, are goals in themselves. Second, they help us identify the best means to the goals that the moral virtues instruct us to strive for. Without prudence and cleverness, a well-intentioned person cannot be truly virtuous, as these intellectual virtues assist us in understanding the right actions.

book 7

Aristotle describes character through three negative states: brutishness, incontinence, and vice. Their counterparts are superhuman virtue, continence, and virtue. This particular section delves into incontinence, effeminacy, and their opposites: continence and endurance. Public opinion is divided over incontinence. It raises questions like: does it stem from ignorance or conscious awareness? What triggers incontinence? How does it contrast with vices like licentiousness? Aristotle suggests four explanations. Firstly, a person might be aware of their wrongdoing but not reflect on it, leading to thoughtless actions. Secondly, inaccurate conclusions might be drawn due to ignorance. Thirdly, emotional excitement or mental instability might obstruct clear thinking. Lastly, desire might force a person to act impulsively, disregarding self-restraint or reasoning. Different types of incontinence exist. An individual consumed by desire for victory, honor, or wealth is conditionally incontinent. Those driven by bodily pleasure like sex or food are simply incontinent. Conditional incontinence is not genuine incontinence, it's only named so because it resembles unconditional incontinence. Licentiousness and incontinence are similar, but the licentious individual chooses their actions, whereas the incontinent individual lacks self-control. Incontinence due to temper is more pardonable than that driven by desire. Someone with a hot temper can be reasonable to an extent, unlike those who surrender to desire. Incontinence is less severe than licentiousness, as it's more acceptable to do wrong out of lack of restraint than deliberate choice. Continence is favored over endurance as it means resisting desire rather than merely tolerating it. Effeminacy or softness, the inability to endure pain like most people, is the opposite of endurance. Reforming a licentious person is easier than reforming an incontinent one, as the former's actions are chosen and they can be reasoned with. The licentious are evil, while the incontinent do evil things unintentionally. Some philosophers criticize pleasure. Some believe all pleasure is bad, claiming that sensible people avoid it because it hampers clear thought and distracts us. Others argue that some pleasures are shameful or harmful, or that pleasure cannot be the ultimate good because it's merely a process. Aristotle counters that pleasure is an activity and therefore an end, not a process. It can be harmful, but only in a limited sense. High pleasures like contemplation are harmless. Achieving a good life, the ultimate goal, is a pleasurable activity sought after for its pleasure. This sort of pleasure is the highest good. Bodily pleasures can be harmful if indulged in excessively, but mental pleasures are superior.

book 8

Friendship is vital and marvelous, yet its exact definition varies. It involves a reciprocal sense of affection between two individuals. There are three types of friendships: utility-based, pleasure-based, and goodness-based. Utility and pleasure friendships are incidental and often fleeting, as they depend on personal needs and desires. In contrast, friendships rooted in goodness are long-lasting due to the enduring nature of goodness. These friendships are rare and need time to cultivate but are the most valuable. Only virtuous individuals can form such friendships. Regardless of the type, friendships involve mutual exchanges. Nevertheless, there are inherently unequal relationships such as parent-child, spouse, or ruler-subject. In these cases, the level of affection should correspond to each party's worth, with the lesser party showing more love. Friendship cannot exist with a huge gap between individuals. Many prefer being loved over loving for the sake of flattery and recognition. However, true friendship is marked by loving more than being loved, and it lasts when each party loves the other based on their worth. Justice and friendship are intertwined and crucial for community cohesion. Abusing a close friend or family member is far worse than a stranger since friendship, justice, and community are interrelated. There are three fundamental political constitutions: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy, with their corrupted versions being tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy respectively. These political structures are analogous to family relationships. Disagreements among friends are common in utility-based friendships. In these cases, the recipient rather than the giver should determine the service's value. In unequal friendships, it's crucial for each party to receive a fitting benefit. A less privileged individual might not offer material wealth to a benefactor but can provide respect and gratitude according to their means.

book 9

In reciprocal relationships where each person benefits differently, it's crucial that both parties feel they receive fair treatment. A predetermined price is the best approach though some kindnesses can't fully be compensated. If there's a disagreement, the person who gets the service should decide its worth. It's essential to favor friends, but not at the expense of other responsibilities. Friendships built on utility or enjoyment end when these elements are no longer present. These splits become complex when friends believe they're appreciated for their personality rather than incidental qualities. Sometimes, ending a friendship is necessary when a person has misrepresented their true character. Friends who drift apart can't stay friends, but should maintain some respect for their past friendship. The emotions we have for friends mirror those we have for ourselves. For example, a good friend desires good things for their friend, enjoys their company, and shares personal joys and sorrows. This applies to our self-relationship, even with bad people who mistreat themselves and their friends. We experience goodwill towards people who exhibit merit or goodness, but this feeling differs from friendship or affection as it is shallow and not necessarily reciprocated. Concord is a friendly feeling that exists among friends or within a society when people share common goals. Those who give often love the recipients more than they are loved in return. This love mirrors an artist's love for their creation, as the giver partly 'creates' the receiver. It's more satisfying to actively do good than passively receive it. Critics of self-love usually think of people who seek honors and pleasures just for themselves. However, a good person who loves themselves will only pursue what's best, which aligns with the common good. Such a person performs seemingly selfless acts, like risking their safety for friends or giving away funds, out of noble and self-loving reasons. Should a good person be self-sufficient, there is arguably no need for friends. Yet, friendship is one of life's highest goods, and a good person can't attain full happiness without friends. While having many friends is better, maintaining numerous intimate friendships is impractical. It's better to have a few close friends rather than many shallow ones. Though friends are needed more in tough times, they add more joy during good times. In hardships, sharing their misfortunes isn't desired, and during prosperous times, they can offer help to others.

book 10

Eudoxus, from Plato's Academy, believes pleasure is the ultimate good, as we seek it for its own sake and it enhances other positives. However, this only proves pleasure as a good, not the highest good. Plato counters that other aspects like intellect enhance pleasure, hence it can't be the topmost good. The arguments claiming all or some pleasures are bad are flawed, as they falsely assume pleasure as a deficient process of replenishment. Pleasure can't be seen as desirable without conditions. For instance, we wouldn't opt for a child's mindset even if it was pleasurable. Also, certain goods like intelligence or perfect vision are desirable even if they aren't pleasurable. Hence, not all pleasures are desirable, and pleasure isn't the ultimate Good. Pleasure isn't a process, it doesn't transition from inadequate to complete nor does it always need time. It accompanies our faculties like senses or mind when they function optimally. Pleasure completes our activities and being a part of life, it's essential. Only the pleasures pursued by a virtuous person for the right reasons are good. Happiness, being an activity that's an end in itself, is our prime goal in life. But it mustn't be mistaken for mere enjoyable entertainment. The ultimate form of happiness is contemplation. It's an activity of our highest rational faculties and a goal in itself, unlike our practical activities. Only a god could constantly contemplate, but we should aspire to imitate this divine activity as closely as possible. All moral virtues deal with the human aspects of life, which, though necessary, are secondary to the godly activity of contemplation. Simply knowing about happiness isn't enough to lead a good life. If it were, philosophical discussions would be more valuable. Convincing people to be good needs practice and habituation, not just words, and can only take root in a person with good character. It's rare for people to be naturally virtuous, so it's up to the state to create laws to educate the young correctly and prevent adults from going astray. Without good laws, individuals must take responsibility for their children and friends. Parental oversight is often better than laws, as it provides more specific attention. Both politicians and sophists are ill-equipped to teach politics. To determine how to enact laws benefiting citizens, we need to closely examine politics.

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